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Friday Focus: Southern Maryland College Access Network (SoMD CAN)

By Monica Meinert • September 25, 2015

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With the school year officially started, many students may find themselves thinking ahead to college and their futures. This week's Friday Focus organization, the Southern Maryland College Access Network (SoMD CAN) is dedicated to helping students of all ages and their parents navigate the often complicated processes of college preparation, application and financing. Founder Sonia K. Wagner gave us an in-depth look at the important work her organization does in the community.



Q: Tell us about your organization (who you serve, what you do, etc.).

A: Since 2006, SoMD CAN has provided multiple programs (now serving grades K thru 12) which focus on aspiring college-bound students and their families. We assist in their navigation and understanding of the college selection, application and financing process to attain a higher education. SoMD CAN programs include elementary school workshops for parents/guardians, middle and high school ‘in school’ curriculum-based programs, community outreach seminars pertaining to financing higher education and personalized financial aid application assistance. SoMD CAN also developed and manages the local scholarships application compilation for students and community scholarship providers.

SoMD CAN administers in-school programming for minority, low-to-modest income and first generation college-bound students maintaining a 2.5 or better GPA in Calvert County, Maryland. Students are oftentimes referred by school administration and self-select into the SoMD CAN programs, thus increasing our reach to students across the entire school system.

SoMD CAN is celebrating 10 years in Calvert County and has initiated several new programs for the 2015-16 Academic Year, thus making us an organization able to engage the entire K – 12 student/family community.

The I CAN program is a new initiative being piloted in several CCPS elementary schools which will deliver a presentation/workshop to engage parents/guardians in the fundamentals of financing a higher education. SoMD CAN will partner with the Calvert County Council of PTAs on this initiative to engage parents/guardians. We expect to reach 120 adults through the I CAN initiative.

The You CAN program is in its 4th year, engaging a cohort of 8th grade students matching the SoMD CAN Mission statement demographic. The You CAN curriculum is delivered monthly at Calvert Middle School and Southern Middle School. Included in the You CAN program is a parent/guardian component, where we engage through several newsletters and a seminar with the topic of early awareness of higher education attainment being central to the discussion. You CAN served 56 underserved 8th grade students in the 2014-15 Academic Year.

Another new initiative for 2015-16 is the We CAN program, delivered to 9th and 10th grade students in the four public high schools in Calvert County. Much like You CAN, We CAN will be delivered through a monthly, curriculum-based, volunteer-led program. The business community will be engaged to become SoMD CAN Mentors, trained to deliver the curriculum and under the supervision of the Site School’s SoMD CAN Pre-College Advisor. We expect, in our pilot year for We CAN, to reach at least 80 students within the targeted cohort criteria.

The origin of SoMD CAN programming, developed to educate, motivate, and engage our targeted cohort of students, is our Junior and Senior High School program. SoMD CAN consists of a two-year curriculum, delivered in-school on a weekly basis. Services and resources delivered through the curriculum and community outreach are college selection, college application, managing the financial aid application process, applying for grants and scholarships, study skills, college coping skills, and more. Our cohort of students numbered 251 in the 2014-15 Academic Year.

In addition to the in-school programs, SoMD CAN hosts the Financial Aid Night workshops for students and their families at each of the four public high schools and the Calverton School, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Line by Line workshop, and a presentation focused on understanding College Financial Aid Award Letters and Student Loans. We provide a “FAFSA Day” at each high school, allowing students and families time to meet one-on-one to complete the Federal form for Financial Aid with our professional staff. SoMD CAN hosts “College Goal Sunday”, a national initiative which assists students and families in completing the FAFSA.

SoMD CAN partners with the Calvert Library, College of Southern Maryland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and End Hunger of Calvert County’s Calvert Ca$h Program to increase the FAFSA completion rate among high school seniors in our region. We draw families from the Tri-County region to this event, generally held in early February. We served 400 individuals through these events.

SoMD CAN is the developer and managing agency of the Calvert Local Scholarships Application (CLSA) Clearinghouse. This common local scholarships application is in its 7th year and lists over 50 local scholarship providers. The CLSA Clearinghouse is a community service project, initiated by our founding member Sonia K. Wagner, which facilitates the ability of students to apply to multiple scholarships by completing one common application. The CLSA Clearinghouse allows local scholarship providers to draw from a larger, more diverse applicant pool. In 2015, the CLSA had 195 applicants, 48 local scholarship providers, approximately 88 scholarship recipients who received over $135,000 in local scholarship dollars. The SoMD CAN Educational Grant has been awarded to 36 students for a total of $30,600, in privately donated dollars, since 2007.

SoMD CAN believes that fulfilling our goal of increasing the college rate of Calvert’s high school graduates builds a highly skilled local workforce, thus improving the economic well-being of Calvert County and beyond.

Q: What is your favorite “moment” (example of how your organization helped?

A: Graduate testimonials:

SOMD CAN has made significant contributions to my success over the years. As a student at Patuxent High School (PHS), we would meet up with the CEO Ms. Wagner bi-weekly to talk about our plans for college. She encouraged us to apply to some of the best schools in the country. As a result of this, I was accepted into Penn State University and Drexel University. After being accepted, my next step was finding funding to attend these schools. SOMD CAN also assisted with this by going over the FAFSA application process in detail. She explained terminology such as Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the importance of submitting the application before the deadline to achieve the maximum amount of aid. Although I wasn't able to attend these prestigious schools, I was able to attend Morgan State University.

"During my college summers, SOMD CAN's CEO Ms. Wagner also reached out to me to help with obtaining an internship. She informed me about local internships in Southern Maryland. Moreover, using her connections, she also got me in touch with a manager at Dominion Cove Point to assist with getting me an internship. SOMD CAN's support has been invaluable over the years. I am very appreciative of the organization and its founder, Ms. Wagner. I am now a Morgan State University graduate. I graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering in 2012. I've been working as a DOD contractor for over 2 years. Additionally, I’m working on my master's in information systems and expect to graduate next spring 2016. I owe a lot of my success to SOMD CAN. SOMD CAN has been very supportive of my continued success over the years.” -- Jonathan Torney, Patuxent High School, Grad 2007

“It is an honor and privilege to share my testimony of how the Southern Maryland College Access Network impacted my life. In the fall of 2006, I embarked on a journey with this organization to prepare myself for college, but I was unaware that they would also fortify me with the skills necessary to establish my career, enhance my ability to leverage resources, and re-focus my talents to better execute plans of action. The success of the programs system became evident after receiving my first acceptance letter with a $65,000 scholarship towards my first two years. Initially, I was a bit overwhelmed. One part of me saw the figures; it was a lot of money. My family’s household brought in a modest income, and having a twin sister, I knew my parents could not afford to send us both to college at the same time. The other part of me recognized that the school’s curriculum didn’t grasp the content I was looking for to catapult my career.

“It was during this time of indecisiveness when I observed the servant leadership and commitment from the advisors in the program. They emphasized to me the importance of vision, planning, and commitment. They challenged me to continue using their system and I would find the scholarship money to attend the college of my choice. It was after that mentorship that I turned down my first scholarship. That summer, I applied the take-away from my first year in the program to secure an internship with the Naval Air Systems Command. I showcased my talents and abilities, just as I was advised to do in my scholarship and college applications. I cultivated my relationships with engineers, scientists, and leadership within NAVAIR, and upon my summer debriefing I was offered a full-scholarship to attend Morgan State University. I now serve as an engineer supporting the Naval Air Systems Command full time. Although many have played a role in the success I have had in my life thus far, I owe the launching of my career, choice of my education, and much of my early professional development to the Southern Maryland College Access Network. My hope is to one day help the future leaders of our country, as this organization does each and every day.” –Nathaniel L. Scott, Jr., Electrical Engineer, Naval Air Systems Command

Q: What is your biggest challenge?  

A: Fundraising. We serve anywhere between 800--1,000 individuals each year for the past 10 years. Our funding stream has remained static, and we have lost substantial funding in this Academic Year 2015-16.

Q: Are there any upcoming events?

A: Yes, we provide the Financial Aid Nights across the county, have introduced the I CAN program which brings Financial Aid and College Funding Early Awareness to parents with Elementary aged students, and several community/church based workshops. Below is the schedule for our Financial Aid Nights and supporting workshops.

Q: How can people get involved with your organization?

A: We have a new initiative that will be piloted at Calvert High School this academic year called “We CAN”. A Community Volunteer Advisor works with the SoMD CAN Pre-College Advisor to lead 9th and 10th grade underserved students through the beginning process of college awareness. We hope to have all four high schools on board for AY 2016-2017, needing 4 Community Volunteer Advisors.

SoMD CAN needs community members to be involved with some of the administrative responsibilities, such as a “Social Media / Marketing Volunteer”, a “Retention Advisor”, and a “Grant Writing Volunteer”.

The Calvert Local Scholarships Application Clearinghouse needs an individual or a company to champion the development of an automated system for students to an online method for applying to the 50 listed scholarships on the Calvert LSA.